PARIS, France -- One morning, late in 2006, a senior advisor to the then Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin invited me for breakfast at his office near the Invalides.
People around France are deeply interested in what happens in the U.S. election.
This turned out to be a tete-a-tete, and once past the pleasantries and pain au chocolate, the subject on the table was the American elections. Who, the official wanted to know, did I think had the best chance to be the next president? Now this was well before "Joe the Plumber", before Sarah Palin, before the New Hampshire primaries, the Iowa caucus, back in the days when more than a dozen people were claiming they were in the running for President.
Having spent most of my career outside the United States, and reporting for the international network CNN, U.S. politics is not my primary focus. But I had just read a cover story in Time Magazine about this guy from Chicago: Barack Obama. I was raised in Chicago, and I know it's a place where they take politics seriously. What's more Obama had such an interesting background. So after breakfast I sent the article to my host and told him Obama was the one to watch.
It wasn't really prescient, just a lucky shot. Given the long, nearly impossible task of making it to the White House absolutely anything could have happened along the way and "Democratic Presidential candidate Barack Obama," could have turned into "Barack who?" And I am still not predicting he will win. But it certainly is looking much better for him now than it did back in November 2006.
In the two years since, I can't tell you how many hundreds of times French friends and taxi drivers have asked me the same question Villepin's advisor did. It is a measure of the intensity of the French interest in the next president -- and the intensity of the displeasure with the previous one -- that so many here and elsewhere in Europe have been so fascinated, so long, in an election where they cannot even cast a vote.
But in the U.S., where they can, the atmosphere is much the same. Rarely have I seen such passionate engagement in American politics among my countrymen. Part of it is a sense of history. Amazing, an Afro-American may be the president just 40 years after Martin Luther King marched for equal rights. Amazing, a woman from a small town in Alaska that is closer to Russia than Washington could be vice-president. Amazing, more than $3 billion...billion!...will be spent on election campaigns in the U.S. this year. Amazing, free-enterprise America has bailed out the banks and gone socialist... well maybe that last point is a bit exaggerated.
I have always thought the best and most accurate place to draw conclusions about the U.S. is from outside it. When you live there you are just so bombarded by misimpressions about what is going on that you can't really put things in perspective. And I have always thought Paris is an especially good vantage point because A) a lot of French know an awful lot about what is going on in America and B) sooner or later nearly everyone of any importance in the U.S. passes through here either officially or just taking a week off to visit the museums.
Certainly this election has excited interest in the French people more than any other in recent history.
Partly that may be because of the sheer scale of run up to November 4th: It's been bigger than any election I can remember. Two years long, 40 debates, fierce caucuses and primary battles in all 50 states and even some territories.
And it's also featured some of the most historic choices ever confronting the American people, with the prospect of the first female President giving way to the very real possibility of America's first Afro-American president.
I have a feeling we -- both Americans and French -- are going to miss the campaign after election day. It's a little like the baseball World Series or the soccer World Cup. You get used to the daily rush of hearing about the latest victories and defeats. It's not going to be nearly so exciting when the next president gets down to the business of solving all the problems he will inherit.
And there is no end to them. The U.S. is teetering at the edge of an abyss; financially, geopolitically, socially.
A lot could go wrong, so getting this election right is very important. But no one can ever say the choices weren't clear on November 4th, or that the campaign did not squarely address the issues. This time the campaign lived up to expectations.
This time Americans got their money's worth.